Parish Boundaries: “Where are you from?”

The Catholic churches within biking distance of my home offer vacuous and shoddy forms of the Novus Ordo liturgy. In addition, they are ugly.

ugly church 1.jpg
Catholics helpfully suggest that I get in my car and drive 20 miles to attend a Mass at a parish more in alignment with my liturgical and aesthetic proclivities. But I live local; I use my bike to commute to work and for errands. I bike to save money, conserve natural resources and to get exercise. Why should I change my ways and drive 20 miles on congested freeways to participate in the Mass in a neighborhood far from my own? These well meaning Catholics fail to realize that their far-flung travel and consumer approach to church is Protestant, not Catholic. At least as Catholicism existed until Vatican II when the Church splintered into factions.

Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth Century Urban North, by John T. McGreevy, offers significant insight into the powerful social cohesion of Catholics in the geographically centralized parish system that existed until the fragmentation wrought by Vatican II (excerpts from p. 11-25):

At least from the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century onward, canon law stressed that the parish served all of the souls living within its boundaries.

… a specifically Catholic style of merging neighborhood and religion organized life in the large sections of the northern cities by the 1920s and 1930s. Virtually all of the Catholic immigrant groups… placed enormous financial, social, and cultural weight on the parish church as an organizer of local life.

In the 1950s, a Detroit study found 70 percent of the city’s Catholics claiming to attend services once a week as opposed to 33 percent of the city’s white Protestants and 12 percent of the city’s Jews. “Those whose experience of church influence has been confined to Protestant bodies,” concluded one study of Poles in Philadelphia, “will have exceedingly little idea of the extent of the Church’s power in a Roman Catholic community.”

nun and students

The Catholic world supervised by these priests was disciplined and local… Most parishes also contained a large number of formal organizations—including youth groups, mothers’ clubs, parish choirs, and fraternal organizations—each with a priest-moderator, the requisite fundraiser, and group masses. Parish sports teams for even the youngest boys shaped parish identity, with fierce rivalries, developing in Catholic sports leagues between Immaculate Conception and Sacred heat, St. Mary’s and Little Flower.

Resurection Girls Basketball league 1957

Resurection Girls Basketball league, 1957

These dense social networks centered themselves around an institutional structure of enormous magnitude. Virtually every parish in the northern cities include a church (often of remarkable scale) a parochial school, a convent, a rectory and occasionally, ancillary gymnasiums or auditoriums…

Brooklyn alone contained one hundred and twenty-nine parishes and over one hundred Catholic elementary schools. In New York City more generally, forty-five orders of religious men, ranging from Jesuits to the Passionist Fathers, lived in community homes. Nuns managed twenty-five hospitals, the clergy and members of religious orders supervised over a hundred high schools, as well as elementary schools that enrolled 214,000 students. The list of summer camps, colleges and universities, retreat centers, retirement homes seminaries and orphanages was daunting.


Parish school classroom, 1950s

…when examining the “splendidly organized system constructed by the Roman Catholics, Protestant analysts bemoaned the fragmentation of membership which the Protestant groups experienced. As one Detroit study emphasizes, “the general Protestant lack of the geographical parish makes it impossible to know who should be responsible or to hold any one responsible for churching any given area.”

Put another way, Catholic neighborhoods were created, not found… The result of these Catholic efforts was a merger of educational, religious, and social communities.


Saint Rita, Brooklyn, 1940s

Significantly, studies as late as the 1960s and 1970s found Catholics unusually apt to form friendships and social networks based upon religious ties, as opposed to ethnic or occupational networks. Catholics stayed longer in urban neighborhoods, counted more friends within walking distance, and were more likely to be involved in neighborhood institutions, especially a local parish church. One Pittsburgh study concluded that perhaps the best way to ensure neighborhood stability was to place a Catholic church in the center of the area.

Through the 1950s, advertisements in Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Chicago newspapers often listed available apartments and homes by parish—“Holy Redeemer 2 flat” or “Little Flower Bungalow”—instead of using community names.

A powerful indicator of the importance of the Catholic parish is found in the answer of Catholics and some non-Catholics to the question, “Where are you from?” Throughout the urban North, American Catholics answered the question with parish names—Visitation, Resurrection, St Lucy’s—a distant echo of a rural Europe where village and parish identity assumed primary importance.

Catholic parishes also routinely sponsored parades and processions through the street of the parish, claiming both the parish and its inhabitants as sacred ground. As the Eucharistic host was carried through the streets of the neighborhood, parishioners fell on their knees.

roxbury procession 1956

Procession in Roxbury, MA 1956

And yet Catholic parishes were more than the sum of their organizational parts. Catholic practice depended upon Catholic theology, and more specifically a theological belief that the individual came to know God, and the community came to be church, within a particular, geographically defined space. Communities with distinct physical boundaries—as opposed to communities defined by occupation or gender–actually became Church in the context of the liturgy, just as Christ became a specific, and corporeal, in celebration of the Eucharist.

This theological emphasis on the local is also evident in the Catholic tradition of seeing in the neighborhood and society more generally evidence of God’s presence. Where both Jews and Protestants emphases the reading of texts, Catholics developed multiple routs to the sacred. Theologians describe this as a “sacramental” imagination, a will to endow seemingly mundane daily evens with the possibility of grace, always stressing how God became human or Word became flesh.

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